Tucson Sugar Skulls keep playoff hopes alive after holding off Duke City in thrilling fashion | National


The Tucson Sugar Skulls’ playoff hopes remain alive — and one play decided the fate of the Old Pueblo’s IFL team. 

Trailing by a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with nine seconds on the clock, Sugar Skulls eschewed overtime.

Instead, Tucson (5-8) quarterback Cory Murphy put on his superhero cape and rushed in for the go-ahead touchdown to secure a 63-59 win over the Duke City Gladiators (6-7) in Saturday night’s home finale. 

« Man, this was the best (win this season), » said Dixie Wooten, the Sugar Skulls’ general manager and head coach. « This is one for all time. … These guys understand that we have talent, but sometimes we just got to fight and grind like the team that we are. » 

The Sugar Skulls received a postseason push from the Frisco Fighters beating the Green Bay Blizzard, but Tucson will need to beat the Northern Arizona Wranglers in Prescott Valley next Saturday and hope for Duke City to lose its regular-season finale to officially qualify for the playoffs. 

The Sugar Skulls fell behind Duke City 14-0 after the first quarter and only had 24 yards of offense in nine plays. 

To start the second quarter, Sugar Skulls kicker Jimmy Camacho made a 33-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-3. But things turned south on the ensuing kickoff, when Tucson attempted an onside kick that was returned for a touchdown by Duke City’s Ray Jones Jr.. 

« These guys fell back 21-3 and could’ve just quit, but they came back and fought back the whole time, » Wooten said. 

Tucson scored its first touchdown of the game after Murphy threaded a pass to the corner of the end zone to All-IFL wide receiver Ryan Balentine; he ranks ninth in the IFL with 12 receiving touchdowns. 

The special team woes then flipped for Tucson, with Duke City’s Darryl Stonum fumbling the kick return to give the Sugar Skulls another possession to get back into arm’s reach of the Gladiators — and they did, when running back Mike Jones scampered in for an 11-yard touchdown to bring the score to 21-17. 

Duke City quarterback Nate Davis, who threw for five touchdowns in the previous contest in Tucson, responded with a 16-yard touchdown to Xavier Amey. Jones scored another rushing touchdown, but the Sugar Skulls trailed 31-24 at halftime. 

With a chance to tie the game in the third quarter, Murphy threw an interception, and Ray Jones Jr. capitalized on the turnover with a rushing touchdown to give Duke City a two-touchdown advantage. 

Tucson pulled within 45-42  following a 48-yard field goal by Camacho and Duke City fumbling inside the goal line in the fourth quarter, setting up a Murphy-to-Balentine touchdown — and Mike Jones converting the two-point conversion. 

The Sugar Skulls’ second onside kick of the night was returned for a touchdown by Duke City. Tucson attempted a third onside kick, but was quickly recovered by the Gladiators, resulting in a Ray Jones touchdown to give them a 59-49 lead with just under three minutes remaining. 

« We needed to get the ball fast. … When they ran them both back, I was upset because we should’ve tackled them, but it worked in our favor, » Wooten said. 

On the first play from scrimmage on the next drive, history repeated itself and Murphy hit Balentine once again for a touchdown to bring the deficit to 59-56. Murphy finished the game going 17-for-23 passing for 195 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. His favorite target, Balentine, hauled in nine passes for 130 yards and three touchdowns. 

Fourth time’s a charm? Sugar Skulls attempted another onside kick and thanks to a muffed grab, Tucson recovered and had one final chance to take its first lead of the game — more importantly, the victory.

« I knew right then and there that we were going to march the ball down the field and leave them no seconds to run plays, » Wooten said. 

On fourth down inside the five-yard line with the season on the line, it was Murphy, who was added to the team a month ago, who shouldered his way into the end zone to keep Tucson’s « championship or bust » season afloat. 

« It’s an amazing feeling, » Wooten said. « When you fight as hard and come back from being down 21-3 with the playoffs on the line, it’s easy to say, ‘You know what? We tried.’ But, those guys came back and fought until the end. … These guys are coming together and I’ll tell you what, we’re a dangerous team. » 

Up next: Tucson will face Northern Arizona on Saturday at 6:05 p.m. The Sugar Skulls are still in ninth place in the IFL standings and eight teams qualify for the playoffs. A win over Northern Arizona and a Duke City loss next week will ensure the Sugar Skulls of playing in the postseason. The Gladiators will host Bismarck (7-6) on Saturday.

Extra points

  • Former Sugar Skulls kicker Kevin Goessling returned to the « Bone Yard » on Saturday as a member of the Gladiators. Goessling replaced Camacho, who left Tucson for a few games for a CFL tryout but returned last week. Goessling signed with Duke City heading into this week. 
  • Sugar Skulls safety-linebacker hybrid Jajuan Harley didn’t report to practice this week and is no longer with the team for personal reasons. 
  • Quarterback Demry Croft wasn’t active Saturday night, but remains on the roster. 
  • The announced attendance for Saturday’s game was 3,333. 

Contact sports producer Justin Spears at 573-4312 or jspears@tucson.com. On Twitter: @JustinESports